Paperback Writer!

Holy Box of Books, Batman!

I know I announced this when it was official last week, but a HUGE books arrived in the mail the other day, much to the delight of Barnhills everywhere. And so I stacked them up. And…..well. Just look at them! So many! And just after I was complaining to my dear Anne Ursu that I didn’t have a single copy of my own book in my house because I was constantly handing them to children who looked like they may be in need of reading material someday, and viola! Books! Real ones! And they arrived in secret on my doorstep, and I can’t wait to hand them out again to unsuspecting children.

I feel like the tooth fairy. Except without the underlying dental conditions. Also: with books.


Author copies arrived today. A whole box of ’em. My book is multiplying!


After a day that, quite frankly, was a bit of a struggle, and a slog, Ms. Kelly Barnhill is has removed her cardigan and her sensible shoes, and is now dancing around the room with the music turned up very, very loud. In my head I am composing notes of apology to my neighbors for the tremendous din and the whoops of joy, though, really, I know I will neither write nor send them.


Mr. James Brown, will you please serenade us and entertain us with your glorious, fabulous and funky self? Thank you. Ahem.

The Perils of Photography (or, My Life-Long Obsession With Oscar Wilde)

My whole life, I’ve wanted to be this guy:

Oscar Wilde. Man of wit, elegance and grace. His stories were delicate, lovely and brutal. He managed to be both honest and coy at the same time and managed a frankness in literary subterfuge that I have always admired and will never, ever master. Indeed, I’ll never come close. He was lovely to behold, lovely on the page; his words could insinuate themselves into underclothes, convince buttons and laces to spontaneously undo, unravel a “yes” with the flick of an eye.

What I’m saying is that dude got around, and got some. And bully for him.

And he’s my total hero.

Which may sound weird, given that I’m a happily married (and matronly) wife and mama of three. Why is it that I am so utterly, utterly delighted by Oscar Wilde? Honestly, I have no idea, but I’ve been in love with him since I was eleven years old – when I first read “The Fisherman and His Soul”, and I’ve never looked back.

I love him for his cunning duality, his dark humor, his moral ambivalence. I love him for his loneliness, for his joyful and unabashed love of his own body and its appetites, for his hunger for true love, even as it eluded him. Even as it betrayed him. Also, to be perfectly frank, I love him for his fashion sense.

Indeed, if I were to name my two fashion heroes in life, it would be Oscar Wilde and Catherine the Great. Because if I could pull off these outfits (which, by the way, I can’t. As I mentioned: matronly; mama-ish) I totally would.

Oh Oscar! That wrap! That saucy mug! That hat pulled rakishly to one side! That is the face of a young man who honestly wants nothing more than to make love to the entire world, and I for one thinks that he should go right on ahead. But first, he must sit at my table so that I may feed him as he tells me stories.

And the only reason why I bring up my dear, dear Oscar at all is because the good folks at Little, Brown were pestering me last week for a photograph. Something authory and not-horrible, which was problematic, because I have an issue with taking not-horrible photographs. Or, in other words, I tend to be so terribly un-photogenic that cameras, when they are in my vicinity, have been known to spontaneously combust and sometimes explode.

I will never be Oscar Wilde! I will never be dashing or debonair or devastatingly clever. Oh Oscar! A lifetime of loving you and yet you give me nothing! It’s enough to make a lady want to despair.

Still, a photograph was owed, so I endeavored to do my best. I had already made it clear that I did not want any images of me to appear on my book at all. Indeed, as a reader, I always find it jarring to see a snapshot of the author who wrote the book on the book. Do I need to know what the carpenter looked like who made my diningroom table? Or the craftsman who built my piano? Or the architect who designed my house?

(Actually, scratch that one. The guy who designed my house also lives in my house. He eats the food that I cook and wears the clothes that I wash and sleeps in the bed where I sleep and I love him very much.)

Anyway, the point is that I had a very bad attitude about any publicity photograph involving yours truly. I didn’t see the point, I was sure that the results would be horrifying, and for god’s sake it would just be further proof that I was not, nor would I ever be, as awesome as Oscar Wilde, and it was as though the universe was just rubbing it in.

Fortunately for me, I have nice friends.  Bruce Silcox, photographer, and all-around Nice Person, was kind enough to snap some photos for me. I’ve known Bruce for years – our daughters have been friends since Kindergarten – and he managed to quell any camera-exploding mojo that I had radiating from my skin. And he took a few good pictures.

I’m not Oscar Wilde, and I never will be. I am neither dashing nor quick-witted nor devastatingly handsome. I do not write with his sly grace, nor his looming heatbreak. I do not have the power to make men weep for me like he could. Still, my lifelong obsession with Oscar Wilde has built me into the writer I am today. He was my first love, my first writer-crush, and I will always appreciate him for it.

I will never photograph as well as he could on an off-day. Still I like these pictures a lot. So I feel a strange kinship with my hero right now, and I have a hankering to say something devastatingly witty to someone who richly deserves it. Perhaps I need to be invited to more dinner parties. Or, even better, perhaps I should start crashing dinner parties.

Yes. I think I would like that very much.

I’m pretty sure I just squashed the dreams (and possibly the souls) of a bunch of college students.

I just got back from a student/alumni networking event for Liberal Arts majors at my alma mater, St. Catherine University – a small, Catholic, all-lady college in Minnesota. I had agreed – foolishly, yes, I see that now – to sit down and chat with a bunch of current students about my career trajectory, my past experience, how my academic grounding prepared me for where I am today, and…..I don’t know. Some other stuff.

And I told them the truth.

And their faces fell.

And honestly, I’m not (entirely) sorry about framing the things I said the way I said them. No one really prepares college kids for the directionlessness of the post-college years. The uncertainty. The self-doubt. No one tells kids how much utter re-invention their life paths will require of them, how much they will have to rely on their creativity, their vision, their willingness to change paths, change thinking, change everything. And that’s okay – it’s just good to be prepared.

I told them that graduation really sucked for me. That I floated in a state of ennui for a couple of years, without direction, without spark, without a sense of the shape that I wanted my life to be.

I told them that they’ll never feel like a grownup. That they’ll always feel like a learner – and that’s actually good. If we feel like we’re one step behind where we want to be, it means we’re moving. Life requires motion, and action and response. We can coast when we’re dead.

I told them that they needed to be flexible and creative and innovative with their career choices, that they had to be willing to research and analyze, that they need to be able to apply their skills to one day do jobs that may not even exist now. And even more – that they’ll have to do that again and again and again. I told them that the world is dynamic and changeable and there was very little that they could count on, so they’d have to build a life with their own two hands.

I told them that my career – hell, my entire life -was built on a precarious structure of duct tape, string, popsicle sticks and gum. And fairy dust. And prayer. And a couple hocked loogies. And that was okay, because it is the life that I built, which means that I can claim it – even the wobbly bits and the annoying bits and the guess-what-kids-we’re-only-eating-ramen-noodles-this-week bits.

I told them to be prepared to work jobs that they hate, to take orders from people they despise, and to do it with a smile. I told them that they well may be fired one day for reasons totally outside of their control, that good jobs can go suddenly bad, and that things that seem like scraping the bottom of the barrel can turn into the opportunities that define their careers. I told them to take chances. And that self-employment is a terrifying, exhilarating, nail-biting and beautiful, beautiful thing.

I told them that being a writer required masochism, a thickness of skin bordering on delusional, a willingness to be simultaneously separated from the world and integrated into it. A willingness to go to a place of not me. When I’m writing, there is no me. There is only the book. Indeed, when someone reads my book, there is no me there either. The only thing that exists is this: characters, place, story, and the reader’s relationship with the three. Being a writer is both prestidigitation and vanishing – you see the thing I make, but I disappear.

But mostly, I told them to lose everything that they should be doing. Should is a word that has driven many a twenty-something (including myself, once upon a time) straight into the waiting arms of their therapists. Not to knock therapists, or anything, but it seems that we could all save ourselves a lot of trouble if we forget about shoulds and forget about the standards by which our eighteen year old selves judge our twenty-eight-year- old selves (or thirty-eight, or forty-eight) and simply focus on the paths that we’re on, and pouring our hearts and souls into each blessed (and sucky) day.

Once upon a time, I was a starry-eyed co-ed too. The life that I had assumed that I would have was radically different from the life that I had. And honestly, thank god. Because I was kind of an idiot in college. Much of the turns my life has taken, have been entirely accidental. I didn’t mean to fall in love, for example. And then parenthood kind of presented itself when I least expected it. These things dramatically altered my course – away from the shoulds of my college self into the doing the best I can of my adult self.

I didn’t mean to become a bartender. Or a homeless youth worker. Or a janitor. Or a park ranger. Or a receptionist. Or an activist. Or a journalist. Or any of the random jobs I’ve held in my life. Sometimes you get to seize opportunities, and sometimes you take what you can get. All the same I’m glad that I did the lot of them, because each step brought me to where I am now. Novelist. Mom. Teacher. It’s not a comfortable life by any means, and it’s fraught with uncertainty, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.

It’s a pretty good life, actually. And I’ll keep it.

Visual Artists Are Friggin’ Brilliant


So, many of you already know how much I adore the cover of my book. It’s actually a pretty stressful thing – handing your hard-wrought story over to the art department of your particular publishing house and hoping for the best. Hoping that somebody gets your story – and gets it in a way that they’re able to transform the experience of the story (separate, you understand from the story itself) into a single, cohesive image. This requires a person who is fluent in the language of line, the language of rhythm, and the emotion of form.


None of these are skills that I posses. I am not a visual artist. I have neither the eye, nor the fine motor skills, nor the ability to see the world in terms of its elements.


Anyway, I waited and waited for my cover, and I fussed and fussed, because I just didn’t know what I was in for. What if I hate it? I asked myself. It was the first major loss of creative control of my story, and it wasn’t a comfortable place to be in, I’ll tell you what.

And then, they sent me this:

And I love it. Of course I do. I can’t think of a better visual representation of my story. It’s perfect.

And now. Today. Thanks to the miracle of Google Alerts, the brilliant lady who constructed this image has put a little bit of the process on her website. And it is AMAZING.

First of all, her name is Juline Harrison, and she is brilliant. You can visit her website here. She makes beautiful creations out of cut paper, and I think her work is divine. And here, she shows us the original cut-paper piece, before it was altered and colored and covered with words.

See what she did there? What an amazing person. Thank you, Julene, for your soulful interpretation of my story.


And hooray for visual artists! I’m in awe of the lot of you!

A year buds, swells, blooms, dies.

All things considered, I really dug 2010, despite its rather inauspicious beginning at which I learned that my book, originally slated to slide into the world in the fall of 2010, was to be delayed until 2011. That was a blow, and a crushing one at the time. Looking back on it, though, I don’t disagree with it and am actually pretty happy about how things have turned out. In the meantime, I was pretty productive this year – finished some projects, started some more, met some good people, tended my family, read some books, and generally had a pretty nice time. Here is a list, in no particular order, of some of the things I managed to get done this year.

1. Wrote two books. One will come out in 2012, the other I have no idea.

2. Sold a short story collection.

3. Caught a fish. My first one. Likely my last.

4. Learned a bunch of cool stuff at an astronomy workshop in Laramie, WY.

5. Hung out with lovely, amazing and ridiculously smart nerds. Will love them all forever.

6. After a lifetime of longing, I finally loaded the family into the car and headed northward to Canada and the Winnipeg Folk Fest, where I spent five glorious days in dusty squalor listening to an amazing array of musicians, and my kids managed to delight all who saw them with their dancing prowess.

7. Sent my baby to Kindergarten. Cried a lot.

8. Sent my other baby to Middle School. Cried even more.

9. Grew bushel-loads of vegetables in the garden. Ate very, very well.

10. Camped on an island in the middle of the Boundary Waters. Saw the Northern Lights reflected on the surface of a windless lake.

11. Showed the children how to find Jupiter. Listened to them gasp as they located it with their binoculars, seeing that bright red spot winking like a ruby in the dark night sky.

12. Welcomed a Brother-in-Law into the family. Learned of an impending Sister-in-Law.

13. Swam in the ocean. Did not get eaten by a shark.

14. Saw wolves. Two of them, and they were huge and wild and wonderful. They haunt my dreams.

15. Met more writers this year than I ever have in my life, thanks to Launchpad, Kidlitcon and World Fantasy. This is good, because the disparate jobs of writing and mothering makes me sometimes feel very alone in my work life. Or that my world life must always happen in the margins. Or something. In any case I just have never had a lot of opportunities to connect with other people in the same work as me – the people for whom the building of stories is a daily vocation, the people who sweat and groan under the construction of sentences, who mine words like precious stones. It was astonishing for me; a revelation. It’s nice to have colleagues, even if you only see them once a year. It’s nice to know we’re not alone.


As for 2011 – this year I become a novelist, and while that thought makes me so nervous that I think I might barf with these incessant jitters, I’m very, very pleased as well. My little book! After fits and starts, revisions so severe that only a sentence or two survived, after begging, pleading and ultimate despair, my book will finally live. Grant you sure feet, my book. Strong legs. Clear eyes. Feathers. Wings. In the end, our books really are like our children: we conceive, we nurture, we labor, we tend; and in the end they fly away. Grief, pride, relief. Is this normal? I hope so.


In any case, hello 2011! Welcome. We’ll do our best to make you beautiful.


So we nixed THE BOY WITHOUT A FACE, and then it was JACK BE QUICK, followed by THE CURIOUS FACE IN THE CORNFIELD. Shortly after that, we played with MAGIC UNDERGROUND, then UPROOTED, then THE SECRET HISTORY OF HAZELWOOD, then A CHILD OF EARTH AND MAGIC then THE WORLD UNDER THE WORLD, then THE UNVANISHING OF JACK and THE BOY WHO DISAPPEARED. And then we went and picked something entirely different, and my book now has an official title.

Drum roll, please……..

THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK.   Now, really, Kelly. Was that so hard?



A Great Reluctance

You know in Lord of the Rings, when Bilbo – and then Frodo – are asked to hand over the Ring, and they are overcome and kind of crazed by a sudden unwillingness to part with the wretched thing, despite how it has taken over their lives and made them miserable?

I am in my last bits of Novel edits. The last little things before My Dear Editrix sends the manuscript off to copy editing. And as difficult as the last few months have been, despite the sheer number of times that I’ve bashed my head against the keyboard and torn drafts to shreds and delayed relaxation and having fun and life in general, and the number of times that I’ve seriously considered setting my hair on fire……despite ALL THAT……*sigh*  I just don’t want to let it go.

And I’m dragging my feet. And I’m trying to find major problems that are going to need a month at least to fix. But no. I’m going to have to send my little book into its next phase. And I’m panicking.